In Pinter’s 1964 play, a testosterone-fuelled all-male household is disrupted by the one thing that has long been missing from it: the presence of a woman. It’s the homecoming of not just the son who has escaped the bounds of this misogynistic world but also that of female influence which has been absent since the matriarch of the family died years before.
To these people, all women the long-dead mother, shadows encountered outside the four walls and now the sleek, attractive, powerful operator (as played by Jenny Jules) who bursts in to their lives are pox-ridden whores. Ruth, the professor’s wife meeting her husband’s family for the first time, plays into their hands by taking on the role they project onto her. The point is, of course, that she’s playing them but, apart from the famous struggle over a glass of water in which she trounces her neanderthal brother-in-law, it doesn’t quite convince.
In the Almeida’s glossy programme, there’s a revealing note by Pinter about his working method. From a single line (“What have you done with the scissors?” which opens the play), characters emerge from the shadows, a relationship takes place and an interesting situation is established. If this weren’t the greatest living playwright, though, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is someone who doesn’t know how to end his play (he goes on to say “our beginnings never know our ends”). Without an overall vision of where it’s going, the piece descends into surreal arbitrariness and an electrifying opening leads to a mystifying and patched-up conclusion. What could have been a masterpiece doesn’t quite make it.
Michael Attenborough’s production is on the lightweight side, skimming across the swanky surface without dipping below to where the iceberg of Pinter’s world lies. It’s played fast and very naturalistically without due regard to the strangeness of the writing. A little stylisation wouldn’t go amiss. The play sparkles and dazzles with Pinter’s wonderful use of language (can anyone dish-up tirades of abuse like him?) but the speed and variety of delivery frustrates.
The performances by a reliable cast are perfectly competent Kenneth Cranham bubbles and spits as Max, the ex-butcher with grandiose ideas of his past, Anthony O’Donnell’s put-upon chauffer-uncle evokes some sympathy, Neil Dudgeon’s different-from-the-rest Teddy confounds our expectations and there’s a lizard-like Lenny from Nigel Lindsay but it’s all a bit cosy. It kept reminding me of the recent West End revival of Bill McIlwraith’s The Anniversary, not a comparison that comes easily to mind when thinking of Pinter. I can’t help feeling, despite its shortcomings, the play demands and deserves more.